On execution by Wookie Kim

Today is technically the start of my road trip, but I don't really see it that way because I'll actually be back in Baltimore Sunday evening. Today, I'm headed to the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York for the inaugural Twisted Branch Trail Run, which begins at 5 a.m. tomorrow. The Twisted Branch is a 102-kilometer (63.7-mile) trail race with almost 11,000 feet of vertical ascent. It's going to be a hard day. I've been anticipating this day for almost three-quarters of a year now. And, with 16 hours to go, I'm ready.

There's obviously a lot of training that went into this race. But from here on out--that is, until I cross the finish line at mile 64--all I'm thinking about is execution. Prior planning and training only go so far. All the miles I've logged, all the sacrifices I've made up until now--they all mean nothing if I don't execute on race day. Execution, in short, is everything.

For the last couple weeks, I've been working on execution by tinkering with my race plan. I always start with a course elevation profile. I annotate that profile with significant geographical features, general milestones, and aid station locations. I write down numbers so I know exactly where I'll be and when. The plan also incorporates my notes on the race-day principles that I'll do my best to adhere to. I've been looking at--and will continue to look at--this one-pager over and over again today. 

My Twisted Branch race plan.  

The race plan might seem unnecessarily detailed. But this single sheet of paper does so much, not only to remind me of what lies ahead tomorrow, but also to prepare me mentally for what is bound to be an extremely challenging, but incredibly fulfilling, day out on the trails.

The Twisted Branch Trail Run marks the start of my running road trip. I couldn't have asked for a better challenge to kick things off. I am ready.

Fueling up. by Wookie Kim

My recurring nightmare has me twisting or spraining an ankle, but the bigger stressor--and the tougher day-to-day challenge--is ensuring that I eat well, and eat enough, throughout the trip. There's little left to do. I'm done packing. I'm done gearing up. All that's left, really, is gathering food.

While I have a decent amount of food stockpiled, and have a rough food plan set out, there are still too many unknowns such that predicting my food needs has been quite difficult. For one, I don't know how many miles I'll actually be running each day. I've picked tentative trails and routes for each park, but I don't yet know whether the mileage I'm setting for myself (15-35 miles of trails per day) is sustainable. Even if it is sustainable for a few days, can I do it for a few weeks? I also don't know how much of a "setback" the 100K trail race will be. I'll need at least a few days of recovery after that race, but how much, exactly, will I need? These are all things I'll have to play by ear. Depending on how these all play out, I'll have to adapt my diet and caloric intake accordingly.

Luckily, I have help when it comes to fueling. Three absolutely wonderful companies are supporting me with food. Here's a little bit about each, and why I think these foods will contribute greatly to the success of this trip.

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First is Birch Benders Micro-Pancakery. They make out-of-control, bonkers-delicious organic pancakes. They sent me a case each of six different flavors: original, six grain cinnamon, chocolate chip, gluten free, paleo, and protein. Unlike other companies, Birch Benders makes flavors that actually taste substantially different and use varying ingredients. No two pancakes are the same.

All the tools one needs to make these pancakes (measuring cup optional).

All the delicious flavors Birch Benders sent me.

Birch Benders pancakes are going to be the core of my on-the-road breakfast routine. Each morning, the first thing I'm going to do is make these pancakes (and then, of course, a cup of coffee). What makes Birch Benders so amazing is that, to get your pancake mix ready, all you have to do is add water and stir it up. A few minutes on the pan, and you have mouthwatering-ly good pancakes. Stacks on stacks of them. These pancakes are super quick, nutritious, and hearty--everything I need to start my day. I trust in Birch Benders to fuel me up strong.

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Second is KIND Snacks. They make similarly out-of-control, bonkers-delicious bars and granola. What makes KIND stand out is the quality of their ingredients. This is top-notch stuff that's inside each of these bars. Moreover, the flavors are as varied as they are delicious. Dark chocolate almond mocha, roasted jalapeno, Thai sweet chili. It's almost overwhelming. KIND was kind enough to send me three boxes of bars--a bunch of standard bars, strong & kind bars, and healthy grains bars and clusters--as well as some #swag.

KIND Snacks galore! (I was too lazy to take this out of the car.)

I see KIND as the core mid-run and mid-day snack. Not only are these things delicious, but they go down easily while on the run. The varied flavors add just enough "spice" to make fueling on the go fun. I also can't complain about the food composition--it's got a very even balance of carbs, fats, and protein. Perfect for long slow distance. I can't wait to be nomming on these soon.

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Third, and certainly not least, is Justin's. Not many people immediately recognize the company when you first ask "do you know Justin's?" But once you mention "nut butter" or "almond butter", that initial look of confusion transforms to true understanding. The name recognition might not be there, but Justin's makes, hands down, the best nut butter products on the market. I've always loved their maple almond and honey almond butters. They've sent me 3 cases (3 appears to be a special number today) of delicious fatty nut butter goodness. (I don't yet have them--they're actually sending them to my first friend-stop in Chicago.)

I didn't take this photo, but this packaging is reason enough to go out and get some.

I couldn't think of a better-tasting way to up my fat, protein, and overall caloric intake. Nut butter is always a great healthy complement to many foods. But to have the option of eating nut butter that tastes heavenly is a real privilege. Moreover, I'm receiving their nut butter in the form of 1.15oz squeeze packs. These will be incredibly convenient to eat and use while on the run. I won't have to stop, pull out a jar, unscrew that jar, pull out my knife, scoop some nut butter, etc.--I'll simply tear and squeeze.

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I'm really thankful for the support Birch Benders, KIND, and Justin's are providing. As an added bonus, these are companies with incredible origin stories, values, and people (thanks Matt L., Lizzi A., Christina B., and Garrison J.!).

I'll end by noting that I was not asked by anyone to make any sort of plug for any of these foods. Everything above is my honest, unfiltered opinion. As the summer progresses, I'll be providing updates on how these foods stand the test of time. Until then, I'll be nomming away!

On solo camping by Wookie Kim

As excited as I am by all the running I'm about to do, there's another aspect of the trip that I'm eager to experience: solo camping.

Indeed, this trip is as much about immersing myself in the natural world as it is about traveling and running the country. I explicitly chose to avoid traditional lodging because I want to be, by night, where I'll be by day--in the wild. Also, the idea of going it alone seemed attractive, not because it would prove that I can, in fact, manage it, but rather because I anticipate learning things that one can learn only when alone in Nature. Having space to myself to reflect, and to take everything in, just seems incredibly appealing.

While I've gone camping a good number of times in my life, I've always done that as part of a group. That has also always meant that I could free-ride on the expertise and labor of others. Sure, I'd pitch in, but I never took the lead on anything. So I never really "learned" all that one would need to know to camp--let alone camp solo. Over the course of this trip, I hope to overcome that deficit. As with everything I'm doing on this trip, I'm taking things in steps.

The first step is to acquire the gear. I've done that. After talking things over with several experienced outdoorspeople (thanks Victoria B., Garrett M., and Lucas M-B!), and after several REI visits, I finally bought everything I needed (note: it wasn't cheap).

The next step is to familiarize myself with that gear in a controlled environment. Even if I theoretically have everything I need, I may not know whether I can "work" with what I have. Can I properly set up my tent by myself? Do I know how the ResQLink system works? Etc. I'm still 2 days away from hitting the road, but I've at least answered the first question. Yes I can.

Experienced and non-experienced campers alike may laugh at the above. How hard can it be to set up a tent? The answer? Really not that hard. But until I've done it with my own two hands, I can't be certain. And if I'm not certain, well, that means I'm taking another risk that probably need not be taken. 

Next, I'll take this into a semi-controlled environment. In advance of the Twisted Branch 100K, I'll be camping with Jeremy L. and Lisa P. at a county park near Naples, NY. There, I'll be outdoors, in a campsite, with all my gear. I'll truly be able to test out, in the elements, my home for the next 45 days. I'll also be able to try my hand at cooking food using my Whisperlite camp stove--another essential skill. If something goes wrong, I'll let Jeremy or Lisa (help me) figure things out. And then I'll keep practicing until I reach mastery. Again, the tasks I intend to be able to complete are easy in the grand scheme of things. But I won't leave upstate New York until I feel confident that I know the very basics of setting up camp.

From there, I'll gradually add layers of complexity as the trip progresses. On my first day alone, for instance, I'll be at a "backcountry" site in the very tame Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I'll be relatively close to a major road, but I'll have none of the amenities that proximity to civilization usually provides (i.e., no water, no electricity, etc.). Moreover, I'll have to "leave no trace." And so on. The hope is that, by the end of the trip, I'll be comfortable setting up camp anywhere and in any conditions.

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With just over 50 hours to go until the start of the most epic race of my life, I'm continuing to taper. I'm running almost nothing (I've run <10 miles this week), eating like a pig, drinking water like a camel, and, most importantly, resting like a sloth. It's all a little uncomfortable, but that's part of the process. On that note, it's time to test out my sleeping arrangements in a very-controlled, air-conditioned, environment. Goodnight!

On preparation and risk. by Wookie Kim

A full week separates the day I finished my last job and my departure date this Friday. I thought I'd have time to relax, but this week has been busy with final preparations.

I've already completed a lot of the prep. I've finalized my overall route. I've mapped out a detailed plan for the first 10 days of the trip (each day's plan includes a clear understanding of how far and how long I'll drive, where I'm driving to, what trail(s) I plan to run, how long I'll run, where I'm setting up camp, and other considerations to keep in mind). I've gone to REI twice to gather all the gear I'll need (e.g., tent, sleeping pad, stove, safety kit). I've been double-checking my list of gear. And I've (mostly) finished packing up my apartment.

But there's so much more that I still have to do before I leave. I need to track down some final gear items (read: I need to go to REI again). I need to finish packing up my apartment. For my parents' sake, I need to finalize a safety plan. I need to stock up on food and water. I need to say goodbye to my friends in Baltimore.

Another thing I need to do--and am doing at this very moment--is tune up my car. I'm currently sitting in the waiting room of my car dealership, waiting for a mechanic to fix up a variety of things with my car. As a general matter, my car has been in very good shape. I probably didn't need to come in today. But I'm glad I did. It turns out that these issues could've create unexpected problems while on the road (most importantly, my brake pads were in bad shape and needed replacement).

The underside of my car.

The underside of my car.

That brings me to an important topic: risk. This trip is filled with risks. I might fall on the trail. I might run out of gas in an area with no cell service. I might bonk in the backcountry. I might encounter a bear. In short, a lot of things can--and will--go wrong. (Unsurprisingly, my parents have pleaded with me not to go--my mother even suggested she'd come with me!)

But that's okay. Kilian Jornet, one of the world's best ultrarunners (and my running idol), once said:

Life isn't something to be preserved or protected. It's to be explored and lived to the fullest. And to make the most of it, we need to be in the mountains. We need to be here, and if we pay such a high price at times, it's because we're really making the most of life.

Running America will be risky, but by doing it, I'm exploring--and making the most of--life.

At the same time, what's not okay is bearing unnecessary risk. I'm passively accepting the things I can't control (e.g., the weather), but I'm doing a lot to reduce the risks I can feasibly control.

By way of example, here's how I'm dealing with my single-biggest fear: twisting my ankle on the trail. With all the miles I'll be running, I'm bound to take a wrong step at some point. But I've taken multiple steps to reduce the chance that I take that wrong step. First, I got trail shoes with impeccable traction (the Hoka One One Speedgoat--they're amazing!). I'll be sure to use these on especially technical trails. Second, I bought lightweight trekking poles (the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z--also amazing!). I've used poles on hikes before, but never while running. Following the lead of Sage Canaday, I'm going to use these poles to maintain balance, and give me extra support while climbing. Finally, if these two prophylactics fail, I have a ResQLink personal locator beacon (generously borrowed from Lucas M-B!), which I can deploy in an ultimate crisis situation. Of course, I hope absolutely nothing happens to my ankle (except get stronger). But I can't count on that happening, and need to be prepared for every scenario.

I'm going to continue getting ready (i.e., continue waiting in the waiting room), but if you have other risk-reduction tips, please share them here!


On photography. by Wookie Kim

I'm documenting this trip not only in words, but also in photos.

Photos are incredibly powerful carriers of meaning and emotion. And they carry that meaning in a medium that requires almost no mental bandwidth to understand. In the time it would take me to read a written description of what's in a photo, I can "process"--that is, draw meaning from--dozens of photos.

This makes photos incredibly useful in documenting one's personal history. I value knowing about my past, and photos are the primary way that I keep tabs on that past. To me, a photo gallery is a visual distillation of an era of my life. A quick scan of my eyes through a folder of photos on my hard drive lets me re-see the things I've seen, and re-live the experiences I've had. In a sense, then, the fact that I plan to take lots of photos is not so much a decision as an impulse to preserve memories for later.

I also feel a separate sense of obligation to take awesome photos on this trip. I plan to be in some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring areas of this country. I simply can't go to these places without taking the time to capture and communicate what those areas look and feel like to others. Photos are the perfect way to do that. Obviously, a lot of the running that I'll do will be in heavily trafficked areas of heavily trafficked parks. Any photos I take there are far more likely to be run-of-the-mill. But I think I'll also reach some more remote areas of some less-frequented parks. In those areas, I might have the opportunity to capture something unique.

To do a better job at documenting this trip, I decided to take photography a little more seriously--I signed up for an REI outdoor photography class. You see, my entire life, my photography repertoire has included two skills: (1) point and (2) shoot. Last December, I got my first DSLR (a Canon SL1) and immediately began expanding my repertoire--by exactly zero skills. Even though I had all these fancy dials and buttons to touch, I actually touched none of them (except "Auto" mode, which obviously came in clutch!). I wanted to touch some buttons and turn some dials this trip, but I didn't know how. That's where REI's fantastic Outdoor School came in.

I couldn't have been more impressed by the class, which took place this weekend in Pohick Bay Regional Park. For almost 8 hours, our instructor, Ward Morrison, taught me and six other budding photographers the building blocks of photography. We started with the three basic settings that determine a photo's exposure--aperture, shutter speed, and film speed. I'd always seen all manner of these numbers flashing on my screen, but I never really took the time to truly understand what they meant, and how to adjust them to my shooting needs. Today, I actually began the process of learning those principles.

After 4 hours of guided instruction on photo theory and a quick lunch break, we took to the trails to put our new-found knowledge to the test. Below are some of the photos I took, after applying what I'd learned from Ward. Objectively speaking, they're pretty ordinary. But I'm incredibly proud of them because, for the first time ever, I took all of these photos in "Manual" mode only. I never thought I'd be able to say it, but I now actually feel comfortable turning that dial to "Manual" and taking photos! I'm still terrible at practically everything, but I have 45 days to begin figuring this whole photography thing out. Of course, all of this also means I'll spend the trip in a perpetual quest for the perfect shot. I hope I find one.

The idea. by Wookie Kim

Everything starts with an idea. This spring, an idea was born: I would run America.

I didn't want so much to run continuously from one coast to the other. Rather, I wanted to visit by car the parts of America I hadn't yet visited, but stop along the way and run. Particularly, I wanted to run in our national parks. The hope was that I'd spend the summer learning--about those very parks, about the awesomeness of Nature, about living by myself, about myself. I wanted this to be a challenge, but a fun one still. And--no matter what--I wanted to be safe, and return home in one piece. That was the idea.

The idea came about naturally. It was really just a combination of things.

Last fall, I ran my first ultramarathon, a 50-mile trail race in western Maryland. In preparing for that race (the most challenging one of my life), I began spending more time on dirt trails and in parks, instead of on the paved city roads that I'd been so accustomed to.

At the same time, I discovered that, between the end of my current job and the start of my next job, I'd have almost two full months off. This was a substantial block of time all to myself--with no commitments, no burdens, nothing I needed to do. I needed to spend that time wisely.

I knew I'd spend part of that time traveling, but the question was where. The answer was obvious. Nine summers ago, I biked from one coast to the other. That was, without a doubt, the best summer of my life. I wanted to recreate the way I felt that summer. But I would do things a little differently: I would cover different ground, using a different mode of transportation. So, instead of biking east-to-west straight through the center of the country, I would hop in my car, hug the perimeter, and run when I could.

But this trip had to be a challenge. It couldn't be a run-of-the-mill road trip. I needed to be taking risks, testing limits, feeling uncomfortable. It's through challenges, after all, that we live. So I decided to set a goal of hitting as many national parks (and monuments and state parks) as I could. And, in each, I set out to do an epic run. I mapped a 45-day itinerary, and mapped out (almost) 45 runs. I decided I'd reach mountain summits (e.g. Yellowstone's Electric Peak, which tops out at 11,000 feet), and canyon valleys (e.g., the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim), and everything in between.

I also needed something to counterbalance the time that I'd spend speeding across the country in my Prius. I needed to leave time to take things easy. I'd do that by camping, on my own (for the first time ever), in the wild, with a great big valise full of books to read where it's peaceful. I figured I'd document things along the way. So that became part of the plan, too.

That was how the idea came about. On Friday, August 28, I leave Baltimore and the idea becomes real.

The route.